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The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann


The story of the freight route from Stockton through the Southern Mines to Yosemite has been a cooperative effort and was begun by Margaret E. Schlichtmann some fifteen years ago. Her project took the form of interviews with old residents of the road many of which were written down at the time and signed by the persons interviewed. A natural outgrowth of these visits is a splendid collection of old photographs or of reproductions when an original was impossible to obtain.

In time her objective changed from the simple gathering of human interest stories to a determination that they should contain nothing but unimpeachable facts. The scope of the undertaking as it then stood was the Big Oak Flat Road, proper, beginning at Chinese Camp and extending into Yosemite Valley.

Mrs. Schlichtmann did not wish to prepare her own findings for publication. She knew that my husband and I were interested in historic roads; that he had done the field work and I the writing in the production of two books on the Oregon-California Trail. She asked me if I would undertake to read and compile her facts and from them write a book which would serve as a history of the famous old freight route.

But my husband and I were also interested in the little town of Knight’s Ferry where both his grandfather and mine had lived and worked. Almost everything freighted over the Big Oak Flat Road or used by its families came by boat to Stockton and was there loaded onto pack mules or stowed into the great wagons for the journey by way of Knight’s Ferry to the mines or to Yosemite. So we had no difficulty in persuading her to enlarge the scope of her interest to take in the freight route and to start at the logical beginning—the “loading levee” at Stockton. This suggested a natural division of research problems. Mrs. Schlichtmann became responsible for the research entailed by ten chapters of the main body of the book with only casual contributions from me. Her field lay from Knights Ferry eastward into Yosemite, with the addition of many human interest stories within the National Park boundaries. My husband and I located the historic sites in Yosemite and assembled the facts presented in the first two chapters, on Stockton and Knights Ferry— some of which have just come to light. For good measure he added a field study of the “mysterious” route of Joseph Reddeford Walker over the Sierra Nevada in the year 1833.

The chapter on Yosemite Valley, although scrupulously tested for accuracy and presumably correct, does not attempt any scientific explanations of its stupendous beginnings and lets the scenic masterpiece come unaided through its first two billion years. Neither does it deal in detail with its “discovery” by the Mariposa Battalion in 1851 and the conquest of the Yosemite tribe. For these data one cannot do better than to read One Hundred Years in Yosemite by Carl Parcher Russell.

Our story tells of the early white families of the valley, of their lives elbow to elbow with the three or four local Indian villages. Deals with the nerve-wracking experiences of the first year-around settlers in the great granite gorge which was rumored to choke with snow every winter; tells of the world travelers who came to see the wonder of its 2500-foot falls in much the same frame of mind that would have spurred them through the jungle for a sight-seeing jaunt along the Amazon.

Mrs. Schlichtmann’s material is out of the ordinary and almost completely original. It has been gathered from letters and questionnaires as well as from the countless interviews mentioned and each detail has been presented to several informants of whom she has had about ten who remember the ’60s and some fourteen of the second generation. If they cannot reach an agreement (which is amazingly seldom) and the detail is unimportant we have dropped the matter. Otherwise we present both sides and leave the reader to make his own decision. In everything we have let the facts speak.

The old freight route was the life line of the country we write about. Its families lived “along the road.” Its history was their history and the converse was equally true. Mrs. Schlichtmann collected such a bottomless fund of unhackneyed incidents and stories of this fascinating section of the Southern Mines of California that we could not use them all.

The two appendices contain related material, too detailed to place in the text.

Mrs. Schlichtmann’s original maps are accurate and helpful.

The volume covers much that is a comparatively unworked field.

Irene D. Paden

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management